A major piece of investigative journalism from the New York Times this week revealed that as many as 1400 buildings in New York City have sidewalk sheds to provide cover for unsafe facades rather than for construction. Thousands more buildings have failed to inspect their facades or file their findings. The report comes after the tragic death of an architect walking near the main branch of the city’s public library, a story we discussed in a blog last month. The piece of debris that struck and killed her came from a building that had been flagged for facade violations earlier in 2019. 
Along with the scale of the problem, the Times investigation indicates that the root causes of the proliferation of dangerous facades are low fines (about one thousand dollars a year for missed inspections and one thousand dollars a month for missed repairs) and sparse use of stronger enforcement tools like emergency orders to vacate. In the case from December involving the architect, the severity of the April 2019 violation had actually been downgraded by a judge who determined the facade was not unsafe despite the history of violations and lack of repairs.
Although these are still early days, it appears that this most recent tragedy is spurring the city into action. Thousands more inspections are underway and city officials vow to use the full suite of penalties at their disposal to prod landlord and building owners into better maintaining their facades for the safety of the pedestrian public. Unfortunately, strong statutes in the city have been unable to prevent these types of tragedies, illustrating that proper enforcement of the law is key. Of course, if the recent tragedy fades from view and pressure relents, there is every chance enforcement could revert to the lax status quo ante. For the sake of the most recent victim as well as the entirety of NYC’s pedestrians, we must hope this does take place.
 Haag, M. (January 2020) Facades on 1,400 Buildings in New York Are a Threat to Pedestrians from NY Times https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/30/nyregion/nyc-scaffolding-building-facades.html Accessed January 31 2020